When some houses are lost they vanish completely whilst others are drastically altered leaving the building a shadow of its former self. Ashburnham Place definitely falls into the latter category. Originally one of the finest houses in the South East with a renowned library and art collection, it was dramatically reduced and is now a conference centre, the remains a sad reminder of its past glory.
The Ashburnham family had owned the estate since 1150 (though the family goes back further) and which, in 1883, totalled 9,000 acres out of a family landholding of nearly 24,500 acres. Their wealth came from first their extensive lands and then from their pre-eminent position in the Sussex iron industry. The oldest parts of the house were the cellars which dated from the 15th century which were the only remains of the previous house. This house was destroyed or abandoned in the 16th century when, due to religious turmoil, the house and estate were sequestered by Queen Elizabeth. Under Charles I the estate was recovered by the Ashburnhams but the Commonwealth again thwarted any hopes of rebuilding. Debts from fines for loyalty to the King forced its sale for £8,000 to the Relf family. It wasn't until 1665, after the Restoration, that John Ashburnham was able to recover his estate and start the reconstruction of the house.
This building eventually became the back part of the house when a full suite of rooms was added to the south front by the second Earl Ashburnham (1737-1812). This work included the creation of a great entrance hall with two smaller state rooms on either side resulting in a brick house in the Georgian style. The entrance hall included what was regarded as one of Charles Dance's finest works, the main staircase (dated to 1810). The next generation continued the tradition of alterations with the third Earl commissioning designs from Sir John Soane for a porte-cochère, various rooms, a staircase and a bridge. Though it's not known which (if any) of Soane's designs were completed the overall work included the refacing the brickwork of the house with stone slabs and the decoration of the roof line with turrets and minarets.
These alterations were not considered to be particularly tasteful and the fourth Earl, in 1845, decided that brickwork was more suitable. It proved impossible to remove the stone so the house was refaced again - this time in brick. However, further changes resulted in the proportions of the south elavation being compromised which was only partly remedied by the addition of further rooms on the west end of the frontage. These were the last major changes and the house substantially retained this appearance until 1959.
The interiors were a medley of styles reflecting the different phases of building. The centre of the house was dominated by Dance's staircase which rose to almost the full height of the house with family portraits and other paintings hung on the walls and with galleries on each floor with Doric marble columns on the first and simple, stuccoed arches on the second. The large drawing room featured painted wall panels, believed to come from the family's London home, which were thought to be the work of James 'Athenian' Stuart.
However, Ashburnham was best known for its collection of paintings and its library. The third Earl had built up an extensive collection of pre-Renaissance Italian art with the fourth Earl adding a great collection of printed books and manuscripts. By the turn of the 19th century there were obvious financial pressures. A limited sale took place with a Rembrandt going to the Berlin Museum in 1894. At the around same time the Government was offered the fabulous library (which included items such as 'The Hours of Laudomia de' Medici' - sold May 1897) for £160,000 (approx. £11m) but this was turned down. A series of sales between 1883 and 1901 realised over £228,000 (approx. £16m). However there were still many important paintings in the collection.
The sixth Earl - and last of the male line - died in 1924. The house passed to his niece, Lady Catherine Ashburnham, who lovingly maintained the house and its collections until her death in January 1953. Her passing triggered an enormous tax demand for over £427,000 (approx. £7.3m). The distant cousin who inherited this bill - the Rev. John Bickersteth - was forced to quickly sell up. He also faced the prospect of the bill for significant repairs to roof and other sections of the house after they were badly damaged when a fully laden Marauder bomber crashed and exploded near to the house during WWII. Extensive dry rot had also been found. The cumulative effects of both the large potential repair bill and the Death Duties sealed the fate of Ashburnham Place.
Despite the merits of saving the house and preserving the collection the tax man demanded his due. The only way such a sum could be raised was through the sale of virtually all the pictures, furnitures, investments and nearly half the estate. A series of spectacular sales at Sotheby's in June 1953 raised over £150,000 (approx £2.5m). A further sale of furniture, carpets, works of art and family portraits in July raised another £42,000 (£0.7m). The intention to sell the house (which had been assessed by the district valuer at demolition value only because of the wartime damage and dry rot) had been announced in June 1953. Outlying parts of the 9,000 acre estate were offered for sale in April 1955 and by May 1957 more land had been sold. In 1959 the house was largely demolished with the central section losing its upper floor and the rest of the house being reduced to a single storey with the extensive servants wing at the back, the clock tower and the water tower being completely removed. What remained of the house, and just 220 acres of parkland, were gifted by the Rev. Bickersteth to the Ashburnham Christian Trust in April 1960 and it is now a conference centre. A sorry end to an beautiful house and its collection.
Credit: this page was compiled with the help of Mike Ridley - an Ashburnham local who kindly provided lots of information especially the details on the reasons for demolition. There are further images of Ashburnham Place on Mike's website - www.ashburnham-past.co.uk
Supplementary source: 'Ashburnham Place Past & Present' - booklet (1990, Ashburnham Christian Trust)